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A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit

A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit

by Alan Lightman

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From the bestselling author of Einstein's Dreams comes this lyrical and insightful collection of science writing that delves into the mysteries of the scientific process--physics, astronomy, mathamatics--and exposes its beauty and intrigue.

In these brilliant essays, Lightman explores the emotional life of science, the power of imagination, the creative


From the bestselling author of Einstein's Dreams comes this lyrical and insightful collection of science writing that delves into the mysteries of the scientific process--physics, astronomy, mathamatics--and exposes its beauty and intrigue.

In these brilliant essays, Lightman explores the emotional life of science, the power of imagination, the creative moment, and the alternate ways in which scientists and humanists think about the world. Along the way, he provides in-depth portraits of some of the great geniuses of our time, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and astronomer Vera Rubin. Thoughtful, beautifully written, and wonderfully original, A Sense of the Mysterious confirms Alan Lightman's unique position at the crossroads of science and art.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Splendidly illuminating... Imprinted with Lightman's scientific wonderment and poetic grace."
San Francisco Chronicle

“Original. . . . Heartfelt. . . . Illuminating. . . . Lightman writes with his characteristic, unmannered leanness. His style takes something from the scientists who ‘want to hear that call of certain truth, that clear note of a struck bell.’” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"A fine introduction to the excitement and pleasures of science by a scientist who is a humanist in the noblest sense of the word."—Los Angeles Times

"This slender volume mixes insightful scientific biographies with revealing autobiographical accounts and leavens them both with clearly told physics lessons for lay readers." —The Boston Globe

“Wonderfully perceptive. . . . Finely chiseled essays.” —Scientific American

Publishers Weekly
Not unlike its author, this collection is difficult to categorize. Lightman, a physicist and author of four acclaimed novels (The Diagnosis was a National Book Award finalist) as well as several books on science, offers essays (some recent, some dating back as far as 1984) that are neither scientifically substantial nor intellectually lightweight, all touching in one sense or another on the human dimensions of science-the passion it inspires, the use of mathematical abstraction in granting us the ability to grasp the material world, the wonder of Einstein's "sense of otherness... even alienation." He seems to be thinking out loud. The pieces oddly mix personal observation with narrative biography and evolve out of jazzlike riffs on a given topic. Whether the topic is the life of a prominent scientist (like Albert Einstein, Edward Teller or Richard Feynman) or the role of metaphor in science, each essay circles around its subject. The book's value lies in Lightman's perspective rather than in his handling of concrete information; musing on the difficulties of reaching the age of 35 (in a profession where one is then past one's prime) are far more intriguing and far more revealing than when attempting to draw something new out of the oft-told biographies of Nobel Prize winners like Einstein or Feynman. Agent, Jane Gelfman. (Jan. 18) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Whether you are a fan of Lightman's writing (e.g., Einstein's Dreams) or have not yet experienced his astonishingly heartfelt reflections on science, this collection of 11 previously published essays is a wonderful leisure read. These unrelated pieces chronicle his personal journey into the creative dimensions of science, recording struggles to reconcile certainty with uncertainty, logic with intuition, questions with answers, and questions without answers. Since no man is an island, the book also includes entertaining insights into some of the greatest scientific characters of the 20th century, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Edward Teller. Musings about the social and spiritual costs of knowledge close the text. Strongly recommended for public libraries and for academic collections at all levels. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/04.]-James A. Buczynski, Seneca Coll. of Applied Arts & Technology, Toronto Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eleven essays on science, especially physics, and its relation to the humanities. Physicist and novelist (Reunion, 2003, etc.) Lightman brings both his disciplines to bear in these pieces, reprinted from the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere. The subjects range from the abstract (the role of metaphor in science, the lure of pure mathematics) to biographies of eminent scientists (Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller) to personal observations (how it feels to be past the age of creative work in one's scientific field). Lightman observes that scientific language is concerned with giving things their right names, and that scientific prose steers its way from one paragraph to another with topic sentences in which the idea to be explored is stated and named clearly and firmly. In fiction, by contrast, the power of language is used to create emotion and sensation-there can be such a thing, in a novel, as too much clarity and precision. On the other hand, in both science and the arts, there can also be moments when the magic of creativity seems to flow unimpeded: Lightman is especially taken with the way this can happen in math. One essay discusses the career of astronomer Vera Rubin, who graduated from Vassar in the late 1940s and found herself all but shut out of her chosen profession. Rubin's chilly reception was typical of the male-dominated sciences at mid-century, even though her work led to the discovery that much of the universe is made up of dark matter, unseen mass that shows in the rotation of the galaxies. Finally, Lightman examines the feeling of entrapment in an accelerating "wired world," working more hours and having less and lesstime to be human, arguing that we can become more human only by setting our own priorities. A thoughtful and evocative collection, Lightman's first since A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court (1986).

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Ever since I was a young boy, my passions have been divided between science and art. I was fortunate to make a life in both, as a physicist and a novelist, and even to find creative sympathies between the two, but I have had to live with a constant tension in myself and a continual rumbling in my gut.

In childhood, I wrote dozens of poems. I expressed in verse my questions about death, my loneliness, my admiration for a plum-colored sky, my unrequited love for fourteen-year-old girls. Overdue books of poetry and stories littered my second-floor bedroom. Reading, listening, even thinking, I was mesmerized by the sounds and the movement of words. Words could be sudden, like jolt, or slow, like meandering. Words could be sharp or smooth, cool, silvery, prickly to touch, blaring like a trumpet call, fluid, pitter-pattered in rhythm. And, by magic, words could create scenes and emotions. When my grandfather died, I buried my grief in writing a poem, which I showed to my grandmother a month later. She cradled my face with her veined hands and said, “It’s beautiful,” and then began weeping all over again. How could marks on a white sheet of paper contain such power and force?

Between poems, I did scientific experiments. These I conducted in the cramped little laboratory I had built out of a storage closet in my house. In my homemade alchemist’s den, I hoarded resistors and capacitors, coils of wire of various thicknesses and grades, batteries, switches, photoelectric cells, magnets, dangerous chemicals that I had secretly ordered from unsuspecting supply stores, test tubes and Petri dishes, lovely glass flasks, Bunsen burners, scales. I delighted in my equipment. I loved to build things. Around the age of thirteen, I built a remote-control device that could activate the lights in various rooms of the house, amazing my three younger brothers. With a thermostat, a lightbulb, and a padded cardboard box, I contructed an incubator for the cell cultures in my biology experiments. After seeing the movie Frankenstein, I built a spark-generating induction coil, requiring tedious weeks upon weeks of winding a mile’s length of wire around an iron core.

In some of my scientific investigations, I had a partner, John, my best high-school friend. John was a year older than I and as skinny as a strand of number-30 gauge wire. When he thought something ironic, he would let out a high-pitched, shrill laugh that sounded like a hyena’s. John did not share my interest in poetry or the higher arts. For him, all that was a sissyish waste of calories. John was all practicality. He wanted to seize life by the throat and pull out the answer. As it turned out, he was a genius with his hands. Patching together odds and ends from his house, he could build anything from scratch. John never saved the directions that came with new parts, he never drew up detailed schematic diagrams, and his wiring wandered drunkenly around the circuit board, but he had the magic touch, and when he would sit down cross-legged on the floor of his room and begin fiddling, the transistors hummed. His inventions were not pretty, but they worked, often better than mine.

Weekends, John and I would lie around in his room or mine, bored, listening to Bob Dylan records, occasionally thinking of things to excite our imaginations. Most of our friends filled their weekends with the company of girls, who produced plenty of excitement, but John and I were socially inept. So we listened to Dylan and read back issues of Popular Science. Lazily, we perused diagrams for building wrought-iron furniture with rivets instead of welded joints, circuits for fluorescent lamps and voice-activated tape recorders, and one-man flying machines made from plastic bleach bottles. And we undertook our ritual expeditions to Clark and Fay’s on Poplar Avenue, the best-stocked supply store in Memphis. There, we squandered whole Saturdays happily adrift in the aisles of copper wire, socket wrenches, diodes, and oddly shaped metallic brackets that we had no immediate use for but purchased anyway. Clark and Fay’s was our home away from home. No, more like our temple. At Clark and Fay’s, we spoke to each other in whispers.

Our most successful collaboration was a light-borne communication device. The heart of the thing was a mouthpiece made out of the lid of a shoe polish can, with the flat section of a balloon stretched tightly across it. Onto this rubber membrane we attached a tiny piece of silvered glass, which acted as a mirror. A light beam was focused onto the tiny mirror and reflected from it. When a person talked into the mouthpiece, the rubber vibrated. In turn, the tiny mirror quivered, and those quiverings produced a shimmering in the reflected beam, like the shimmering of sunlight reflected from a trembling sea. Thus, the information in the speaker’s voice was precisely encoded onto light, each rise and dip of uttered sound translating itself into a brightening or dimming of light. After its reflection, the fluttering beam of light traveled across John’s messy bedroom to our receiver, which was built from largely off-the-shelf stuff: a photocell to convert varying intensities of light into varying intensities of electrical current, an amplifier, and a microphone to convert electrical current into sound. Finally, the original voice was reproduced at the other end. Like any project that John was involved in, our communication device looked like a snarl of spare parts from a junkyard, but the thing worked.

It was with my rocket project that my scientific and artistic proclivities first collided. Ever since the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, around my ninth birthday, I had been entranced with the idea of sending a spacecraft aloft. I imagined the blast-off, the uncoiling plume of smoke, the silvery body of the rocket lit by the sun, the huge acceleration, the beautiful arc of the trajectory in the sky. By the age of fourteen, I was experimenting with my own rocket fuels. A fuel that burned too fast would explode like a bomb; a fuel that burned too slow would smolder like a barbecue grill. What seemed to work best was a mixture of powdered charcoal and zinc, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. For the ignition, I used a flashbulb from a Brownie camera, embedded within the fuel chamber. The sudden heat from the bulb would easily start the combustion, and the bulb could be triggered by thin wires trailing from the tail of the rocket to the battery in my control center, a hundred feet away. The body of the rocket I built from an aluminum tube. The craft had red tail fins. It was beautiful. For a launching pad, I used a V-shaped steel girder, pointed skyward at the appropriate angle and anchored in a wooden Coca-Cola crate filled with concrete.

I invited my awed younger brothers and several friends from the neighborhood to attend the rocket launch, which took place one Sunday at dawn at Ridgeway Golf Course. John, who was not in the slightest a romantic and didn’t see anything useful about rockets, elected to stay in his bed and sleep. But even so, I had a good audience. Because I had estimated from thrust and weight calculations that my rocket might ascend a half mile into space, some of the boys brought binoculars. From my control center, I called out the countdown. I closed the switch. Ignition. With a flash and a whoosh, the rocket shot from its pad. But after rising only a few hundred feet, it did a sickening swerve, spun out of control, and crashed. The fins had come off. With sudden clarity, I remembered that instead of riveting the fins to the rocket body, as I should have, I had glued them on. To my eye, the rivets had been far too ugly. How I thought that mere glue would hold under the heat and aerodynamic force, I don’t know. Evidently, I had sacrificed reality for aesthetics. John would have been horrified.

Later, I learned that I was not the first scientist for whom beauty had ultimately succumbed to reality. Aristotle famously proposed that as the heavens revolved about the earth, the planets moved in circles. Circles because the circle is the simplest and most perfect shape. Even when astronomers discovered that the planets sometimes zigzagged in their paths, showing that they couldn’t remain in simple orbits, scientists remained so enthralled with the circle that they decided the planets must move in little circles attached to big circles. The circle idea was lovely and appealing. But it was proved wrong by the careful observations of Brahe and Kepler in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Planets orbit in ellipses, not circles. Equally beautiful was the idea, dating from the 1930s, that all phenomena of nature should be completely identical if right hand and left hand were reversed, as if reflected in a mirror. This elegant idea, called “parity conservation,” was proven wrong in the late 1950s by the experiments proposed by Lee and Yang, showing that some subatomic particles and reactions do not have identical mirror-image twins. Contrary to all expectations, right- and left-handedness are not equal.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

ALAN LIGHTMAN is the author of six novels, including Einstein’s Dreams, which was an international bestseller, and The Diagnosis, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the author of three collections of essays and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. Since beginning his career as a theoretical physicist, Lightman has taught at Harvard and at MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and in the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.

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